Did you know that Scotland’s capital Edinburgh was the first UNESCO City of Literature in the world? Edinburgh also hosts the world’s largest International Book Festival every year. Scotland even has a national book town. With population of around a thousand locals, Wigtown has a high concentration of second-hand book shops and book-related businesses.
It’s no surprise then, that Scotland has loads of literature to offer. The following list features books in chronological order, including bestsellers such as Sunset Song, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Docherty. There are a number of titles by distinguished Scottish authors such as Iain Banks, Ian Rankin, Irvine Welsh and Alexander McCall Smith. I’ve included the first novel from the series Outlander, which well and truly has a cult following. And finally the list ends with a novel set in Wigtown itself, The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell, owner of Scotland’s largest second-hand bookshop.
I hope you enjoy these books set in Scotland; if you have any additions, please let me know in the comments below!
Books Set In Scotland
Kidnapped (David Balfour 1/2)
by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886
As he sets off into the world to seek his last remaining kinsman, Uncle Ebenezer, young David Balfour has no idea of the hazards and intrigues that the encounter will bring. He finds his uncle to be a decrepit, miserly man, and soon realizes that Ebenezer is also a liar. But before he can fathom his machinations, David is tricked into boarding the brig Covenant, and bound for slavery in distant Carolina…
Overcoming the perils of sea and the turbulent fortunes that befall him after he is shipwrecked – including a charge of murder – David ultimately emerges triumphant to claim his rightful heritage.
Sunset Song (A Scots Quair 1/3)
by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, 1932
Sunset Song is the first and most celebrated of Grassic Gibbon’s great trilogy, A Scot’s Quair. It provides a powerful description of the first two decades of the century through the evocation of change and the lyrical intensity of its prose. It is hard to find any other Scottish novel of the last century which has received wider acclaim and better epitomises the feelings of a nation.
by Compton Mackenzie, 1947
It’s 1943 and the war has brought rationing to the Hebridean islands of Great and Little Todday. When food is in short supply, it is bad enough, but when the whisky runs out, it looks like the end of the world.
Morale is at rock bottom. George Campbell needs a wee dram to give him the courage to stand up to his mother and marry Catriona. The priest, the doctor and, of course, the landlord at the inn are all having a very thin time of it. There’s no conversation, no jollity, no fun – until a shipwreck off the coast brings a piece of extraordinary good fortune…
by Robin Jenkins, 1958
Thirteen-year-old Tom Curdie, the product of a Glasgow slum, is on probation for theft. His teachers admit that he is clever, but only one, Charles Forbes, sees an uncanny warmth in his reticence and in his seemingly insolent smile—so he decides to take Tom on holiday with his own family. This powerful novel explores one of Jenkins’s consistent and most fruitful themes—how goodness and innocence are compromised when faced with the pressures of growing up and becoming part of society.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
by Muriel Spark, 1961
At the staid Marcia Blaine School for Girls in Edinburgh, Scotland, teacher extraordinaire Miss Jean Brodie is unmistakably, and outspokenly, in her prime. She is passionate in the application of her unorthodox teaching methods and strives to bring out the best in each one of her students. Determined to instill in them independence, passion, and ambition, Miss Brodie advises them, “Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth, and Beauty come first. Follow me.” And they do–but one of them will betray her.
Mary Queen of Scots
by Antonia Fraser, 1969
She was the quintessential queen: statuesque, regal, dazzlingly beautiful. Her royal birth gave her claim to the thrones of two nations; her marriage to the young French dauphin promised to place a third glorious crown on her noble head.
Instead, Mary Stuart became the victim of her own impulsive heart, scandalizing her world with a foolish passion that would lead to abduction, rape and even murder. Betrayed by those she most trusted, she would be lured into a deadly game of power, only to lose to her envious and unforgiving cousin, Elizabeth I.
by William McIlvanney, 1975
His face made a fist at the world. The twined remnant of umbilicus projected vulnerably. Hands, feet and prick. He had come equipped for the job. Newborn Conn Docherty, raw as a fresh wound, lies between his parents in their tenement room, with no birthright but a life’s labour in the pits of his small town. But the world is changing, and, lying next to him, Conn’s father Tam has decided that his son’s life will be different from his own. Gritty, dark and tender, McIlvanney’s Docherty is a modern classic.
by Alasdair Gray, 1981
This work, originally published in 1981, has been hailed as the most influential Scottish novel of the second half of the 20th century. Its playful narrative techniques convey a profound message, personal and political, about humankind’s inability to love and yet our compulsion to go on trying.
A Dark and Distant Shore
by Reay Tannahill, 1983
Reay Tannahill’s great bestseller is the story of an extraordinary woman’s determination to win back her birthright – the remote and beautiful West Highland castle of Kinveil – sold by her father to a Glasgow merchant when she was seven years old.
It is also the intricate picture of a family in the heyday of the British Empire, an epic story spanning almost a hundred years and stretching from Edinburgh to the Crimea, from an expanding America to the India of the Raj.
The Wasp Factory
by Iain Banks, 1984
Meet Frank Cauldhame. Just sixteen, and unconventional to say the least: Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim. That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again. It was just a stage I was going through.
by Iain Banks, 1986
A darkly brilliant novel of self-discovery the cutting edge of experimental fiction. It leads from nowhere to nowhere, the mysterious world-spanning structure on which everyone seems to live. Rescued from the sea, devoid of personality or memory, all John Orr knows is the Bridge, his persistent dreams of war, and his desire for Chief Engineer Arrol’s provocative daughter, Abberlaine.
Knots and Crosses (Inspector Rebus 1/21)
by Ian Rankin, 1987
Detective John Rebus: His city is being terrorized by a baffling series of murders…and he’s tied to a maniac by an invisible knot of blood. Once John Rebus served in Britain’s elite SAS. Now he’s an Edinburgh cop who hides from his memories, misses promotions and ignores a series of crank letters. But as the ghoulish killings mount and the tabloid headlines scream, Rebus cannot stop the feverish shrieks from within his own mind. Because he isn’t just one cop trying to catch a killer, he’s the man who’s got all the pieces to the puzzle…
The Trick is to Keep Breathing
by Janice Galloway, 1989
Janice Galloway’s inventive first novel is about the breakdown of a 27-year-old drama teacher named Joy Stone. The problems of everyday living accumulate and begin to torture Joy, who blames her problems not on her work or on the accidental drowning of her illicit lover, but on herself. While painful and deeply serious, this is a novel of great warmth and energy: it’s the wit and irony found in moments of despair that prove to be Joy’s salvation.
Outlander (Outlander 1/9)
by Diana Gabaldon, 1991
The year is 1945. Claire Randall, a former combat nurse, is just back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon when she walks through a standing stone in one of the ancient circles that dot the British Isles. Suddenly she is a Sassenach—an “outlander”—in a Scotland torn by war and raiding border clans in the year of Our Lord… 1743.
Hurled back in time by forces she cannot understand, Claire is catapulted into the intrigues of lairds and spies that may threaten her life, and shatter her heart. For here James Fraser, a gallant young Scots warrior, shows her a love so absolute that Claire becomes a woman torn between fidelity and desire—and between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives.
A Good Hanging: Short Stories (Inspector Rebus)
by Ian Rankin, 1992
Twelve remarkable, gritty stories starring Detective Inspector John Rebus in his home city of Edinburgh, as only Ian Rankin can portray it: not just the tearooms and cobbled streets of the tourist brochures, but a modern urban metropolis with a full range of criminals and their victims – blackmailers, peeping Toms, and more than one kind of murderer. It’s a city like any other, a city that gives birth to crimes of passion, accidents, and long-hidden jealousy, and a city in which criminal minds find it all too easy to fade into the shadows. As dedicated readers of the series well know, nobody is better equipped to delve into Edinburgh’s back alleys and smoky pubs than Rebus, and no one better able to illuminate his world than Ian Rankin.
Trainspotting (Mark Renton 2/4)
by Irvine Welsh, 1993
Choose us. Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting oan a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fuckin junk food intae yir mooth. Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yersel in a home, a total fuckin embarrassment tae the selfish, fucked-up brats ye’ve produced. Choose life.
Marabou Stork Nightmares
by Irvine Welsh, 1995
The acclaimed author, Irvine Welsh has been hailed as “the best thing that has happened to British writing in a decade”. This audacious novel is a brilliant (and literal) head trip of a book that brings us into the wildly active, albeit coma-beset, mind of Roy Strang, whose hallucinatory quest to eradicate the evil predator/scavenger marabou stork keeps being interrupted by grisly memories of the social and family dysfunction that brought him to this state. It is the sort of lethally funny cocktail of pathos, violence, and outrageous hilarity that only Irvine Welsh can pull off.
by Alan Warner, 1995
Morvern Callar, a low-paid employee in the local supermarket in a desolate and beautiful port town in the west of Scotland, wakes one morning in late December to find her strange boyfriend has committed suicide and is dead on the kitchen floor. Morvern’s reaction is both intriguing and immoral. What she does next is even more appalling. Moving across a blurred European landscape-from rural poverty and drunken mayhem of the port to the Mediterranean rave scene-we experience everything from Morvern’s stark, unflinching perspective.
Black and Blue (Inspector Rebus 8/21)
by Ian Rankin, 1997
Bible John killed three women, and took three souvenirs. Johnny Bible killed to steal his namesake’s glory. Oilman Allan Mitchelson died for his principles. And convict Lenny Spaven died just to prove a point. “Bible John” terrorized Glasgow in the sixties and seventies, murdering three women he met in a local ballroom–and he was never caught. Now a copycat is at work. Nicknamed “Bible Johnny” by the media, he is a new menace with violent ambitions.
One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night
by Christopher Brookmyre, 1999
The occasion: high school reunion. The place: an oil rig converted into a tourist resort. The outcome: carnage.
Gavin is creating a unique ‘holiday experience’; every facility any tourist who hates abroad will ever want will all be available on a converted North Sea oil rig. To test the facilities he’s hosting a reunion for his old school (none of his ex-classmates can remember him, but what the heck, it’s free). He is so busy showing off that he doesn’t notice that another group have invited themselves along – a collection of terrorist mercenaries who are occasionally of more danger to themselves than to the public.
Under the Skin
by Michel Faber, 2000
In this haunting, entrancing novel, Michel Faber introduces us to Isserley, a female driver who cruises the Scottish Highlands picking up hitchhikers. Scarred and awkward, yet strangely erotic and threatening, she listens to her hitchhikers as they open up to her, revealing clues about who might miss them if they should disappear. A grotesque and comical allegory, Under the Skin takes us on a heart-thumping ride through dangerous territory – our own moral instincts and the boundaries of compassion — to present a surreal representation of contemporary society run amok.
The Cutting Room
by Louise Welsh, 2002
When Rilke, a dissolute and promiscuous auctioneer, comes across a collection of highly disturbing photographs during a house clearance he feels compelled to unearth more about the deceased owner who coveted them.
Driven to discover whether the images represent a real event or a fantasy, Rilke is drawn into a nether world of illicit urges and powerful obsessions. A compulsive journey of discovery, decadence and deviousness follows.
by Anne Donovan, 2003
Anne Marie’s dad, a Glaswegian painter and decorator, has always been game for a laugh. So when he first takes up meditation at the Buddhist Center, no one takes him seriously. But as Jimmy becomes more involved in a search for the spiritual, his beliefs start to come into conflict with the needs of his wife, Liz. Cracks appear in their apparently happy family life, and the ensuing events change the lives of each family member.
The Sunday Philosophy Club (Isabel Dalhousie 1/11)
by Alexander McCall Smith, 2004
Filled with thorny characters and a Scottish atmosphere as thick as a highland mist, The Sunday Philosophy Club is irresistible, and Isabel Dalhousie is the most delightful literary sleuth since Precious Ramotswe.
Isabel is fond of problems, and sometimes she becomes interested in problems that are, quite frankly, none of her business. This may be the case when Isabel sees a young man plunge to his death from the upper circle of a concert hall in Edinburgh. Despite the advice of her housekeeper, Grace, who has been raised in the values of traditional Edinburgh, and her niece, Cat, who, if you ask Isabel, is dating the wrong man, Isabel is determined to find the truth–if indeed there is one–behind the man’s death. The resulting moral labyrinth might have stymied even Kant. And then there is the unsatisfactory turn of events in Cat’s love life that must be attended to.
Friends, Lovers, Chocolate (Isabel Dalhousie 2/11)
by Alexander McCall Smith, 2005
Nothing captures the charm of Edinburgh like the bestselling Isabel Dalhousie series of novels featuring the insatiably curious philosopher and woman detective. Whether investigating a case or a problem of philosophy, the indefatigable Isabel Dalhousie, one of fiction’s most richly developed amateur detectives, is always ready to pursue the answers to all of life’s questions, large and small.
In this delightful second installment in Alexander McCall Smith’s best-selling new detective series, the irrepressibly curious Isabel Dalhousie, editor of the Review of Applied Ethics, gets caught up in an affair of the heart–this one a transplant.
When Isabel’s niece, Cat, asks Isabel to run her delicatessen while she attends a wedding in Italy, Isabel meets a man with a most interesting problem. He recently had a heart transplant and is suddenly plagued with memories of events that never happened to him. The situation appeals to Isabel as a philosophical question: Is the heart truly the seat of the soul? And it piques her insatiable curiosity: Could the memories be connected with the donor’s demise? Of course, Grace–Isabel’s no-nonsense housekeeper–and Isabel’s friend Jamie think it is none of Isabel’s business. Meanwhile, Cat brings home an Italian lothario, who, in accordance with all that Isabel knows about Italian lotharios, shouldn’t be trusted… but, goodness, he is charming.
That makes two mysteries of the heart to be solved–just the thing for Isabel Dalhousie.
44 Scotland Street (44 Scotland Street 1/12)
by Alexander McCall Smith, 2005
The residents and neighbors of 44 Scotland Street and the city of Edinburgh come to vivid life in these gently satirical, wonderfully perceptive serial novels, featuring six-year-old Bertie, a remarkably precocious boy—just ask his mother.
Welcome to 44 Scotland Street, home to some of Edinburgh’s most colorful characters. There’s Pat, a twenty-year-old who has recently moved into a flat with Bruce, an athletic young man with a keen awareness of his own appearance. Their neighbor, Domenica, is an eccentric and insightful widow. In the flat below are Irene and her appealing son Bertie, who is the victim of his mother’s desire for him to learn the saxophone and italian–all at the tender age of five.
Espresso Tales (44 Scotland Street 2/12)
by Alexander McCall Smith, 2005
Back are all our favorite denizens of a Georgian townhouse in Edinburgh. Bertie the immensely talented six year old is now enrolled in kindergarten, and much to his dismay, has been clad in pink overalls for his first day of class. Bruce has lost his job as a surveyor, and between admiring glances in the mirror, is contemplating becoming a wine merchant. Pat is embarking on a new life at Edinburgh University and perhaps on a new relationship, courtesy of Domenica, her witty and worldly-wise neighbor. McCall Smith has much in store for them as the brief spell of glorious summer sunshine gives way to fall a season cursed with more traditionally Scottish weather.
Full of McCall Smith’s gentle humor and sympathy for his characters, Espresso Tales is also an affectionate portrait of a city and its people who, in the author’s own words, “make it one of the most vibrant and interesting places in the world.”
by Jane Harris, 2006
A powerful story of secrets and suspicions, hidden histories and mysterious disappearances set in Victorian Scotland.
Scotland, 1863. In an attempt to escape her not-so-innocent past in Glasgow, Bessy Buckley—a wide-eyed and feisty young Irish girl—takes a job as a maid in a big house outside Edinburgh working for the beautiful Arabella—the “missus.” Bessy lacks the necessary scullery skills for her new position, but as she finds out, it is her ability to read and write that makes her such a desirable property. Bessy is intrigued by her new employer but puzzled by her increasingly strange requests and her insistence that Bessy keep a journal of her mundane chores and most intimate thoughts. And it seems that the missus has a few secrets of her own, including her near- obsessive affection for Nora, a former maid who died in mysterious circumstances.
One Good Turn (Jackson Brodie 2/4)
by Kate Atkinson, 2006
Two years after the events of Case Histories left him a retired millionaire, Jackson Brodie has followed Julia, his occasional girlfriend and former client, to Edinburgh for its famous summer arts festival. But when he witnesses a man being brutally attacked in a traffic jam – the apparent victim of an extreme case of road rage – a chain of events is set in motion that will pull the wife of an unscrupulous real estate tycoon, a timid but successful crime novelist, and a hardheaded female police detective into Jackson’s orbit. Suddenly out of retirement, Jackson is once again in the midst of several mysteries that intersect in one giant and sinister scheme.
Girl Meets Boy
by Ali Smith, 2007
Girl meets boy. It’s a story as old as time. But what happens when an old story meets a brand new set of circumstances?
Ali Smith’s re-mix of Ovid’s most joyful metamorphosis is a story about the kind of fluidity that can’t be bottled and sold. It is about girls and boys, girls and girls, love and transformation, a story of puns and doubles, reversals and revelations. Funny and fresh, poetic and political, Girl Meets Boy is a myth of metamorphosis for the modern world.
Gillespie and I
by Jane Harris, 2011
As she sits in her Bloomsbury home, with her two birds for company, elderly Harriet Baxter sets out to relate the story of her acquaintance, nearly four decades previously, with Ned Gillespie, a talented artist who never achieved the fame she maintains he deserved.
Back in 1888, the young, art-loving, Harriet arrives in Glasgow at the time of the International Exhibition. After a chance encounter she befriends the Gillespie family and soon becomes a fixture in all of their lives. But when tragedy strikes – leading to a notorious criminal trial – the promise and certainties of this world all too rapidly disorientate into mystery and deception.
Featuring a memorable cast of characters, infused with atmosphere and period detail, and shot through with wicked humour, Gillespie and I is a tour de force from one of the emerging names of British fiction.
The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle
by Kirsty Wark, 2014
Elizabeth Pringle has lived on the beautiful island of Arran for over 90 years; the retired teacher and spinster is a familiar and yet solitary figure tending her garden and riding her bicycle around the island. When she dies she leaves her beloved house, “Holmlea” to a woman she merely saw pushing a pram down the road over thirty years ago. That young mother, Anna, had put a letter through Elizabeth’s door asking to buy the house, but Elizabeth never pursued her. But time passed and Anna is now in a home with dementia and it falls to her daughter Martha, the baby in the pram, to come and take up their inheritance.
His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae
by Graeme Macrae Burnet, 2015
In 1869, a brutal triple murder in the remote Wester Ross village of Culduie leads to the arrest of a seventeen-year-old crofter, Roderick Macrae. There is no question of Macrae’s guilt, but it falls to the country’s most eminent legal and psychiatric minds to uncover what drove him to his bloody deeds. Ultimately, the young man’s fate hinges on one key question: is he insane?
The story ingeniously unfolds through a series of found documents, including police statements; the accused’s prison memoir; the account of renowned psychiatrist, J. Bruce Thomson; and a report of the trial, compiled from contemporary newspapers.
The Sunlight Pilgrims
by Jenni Fagan, 2016
It’s November of 2020, and the world is freezing over, each day colder than the last. There’s snow in Israel; the Thames is overflowing; and an iceberg separated from the Fjords in Norway is expected to drift just off the coast of Scotland. As ice water melts into the Atlantic, frenzied London residents evacuate by the thousands for warmer temperatures down south–but not Dylan. Grieving and ready to build life anew, he heads north to bury his mother’s and grandmother’s ashes on the Scottish islands where they once lived.
Hundreds of miles away, twelve-year-old Estella and her survivalist mother, Constance, scrape by in the snowy, mountainous Highlands, preparing for a record-breaking winter. Living out of a caravan, they spend their days digging through landfills, searching for anything with restorative and trading value. When Dylan arrives in their caravan park in the middle of the night, life changes course for Estella and Constance. Though the weather worsens, his presence brings a new light to daily life, and when the ultimate disaster finally strikes, they’ll all be ready.
The Wages of Sin (Sarah Gilchrist 1/2)
by Kaite Welsh, 2017
Sarah Gilchrist has fled London and a troubled past to join the University of Edinburgh’s medical school in 1892, the first year it admits women. She is determined to become a doctor despite the misgivings of her family and society, but Sarah quickly finds plenty of barriers at school itself: professors who refuse to teach their new pupils, male students determined to force out their female counterparts, and—perhaps worst of all—her female peers who will do anything to avoid being associated with a fallen woman.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
by Gail Honeyman, 2017
Smart, warm, uplifting, the story of an out-of-the-ordinary heroine whose deadpan weirdness and unconscious wit make for an irresistible journey as she realizes the only way to survive is to open her heart.
Meet Eleanor Oliphant: She struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding social interactions, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy. All this means that Eleanor has become a creature of habit (to say the least) and a bit of a loner.
The Diary of a Bookseller
by Shaun Bythell, 2017
Shaun Bythell owns The Bookshop, Wigtown – Scotland’s largest second-hand bookshop. It contains 100,000 books, spread over a mile of shelving, with twisting corridors and roaring fires, and all set in a beautiful, rural town by the edge of the sea. A book-lover’s paradise? Well, almost … In these wry and hilarious diaries, Shaun provides an inside look at the trials and tribulations of life in the book trade, from struggles with eccentric customers to wrangles with his own staff, who include the ski-suit-wearing, bin-foraging Nicky. He takes us with him on buying trips to old estates and auction houses, recommends books (both lost classics and new discoveries), introduces us to the thrill of the unexpected find, and evokes the rhythms and charms of small-town life, always with a sharp and sympathetic eye.
What do you think of these books set in Scotland?
Have a great book recommendation I’ve missed? Are you planning a trip to Scotland soon? I’d love to hear about more about your travels and tips for books set in Scotland in the comments below!